Basketball had long been the realm of small-town boys—backwater Hoosiers being, in fact, the beau ideal—but by the 1970s the sport had been so completely transformed into a black urban exercise that Bird might as well have dropped in from Paraguay or Sri Lanka. Ironically, too, for most of the Republic's existence we had reveled in the folk wisdom that country bumpkins were the true brains, certain to get the best of city slickers. Almost overnight, though, the reverse became true; a new myth held that "street smarts" were the best kind. Bird's utter genius on the court had to be accounted for in some way, however, and so he was explained away as some sort of idiot savant of the hardwood.
Moreover, when he became an overnight sensation in 1979, his shyness was at its most severe because the events of the previous few years had left him hurt and defensive. Bird had left high school for Indiana University as the consummate small-town hero, but he shuffled back to French Lick less than a month later, even before the Hoosiers' preseason practice had begun. Overwhelmed by the huge Bloomington campus, broke, lonely and intimidated by the wardrobe and wherewithal of a more worldly roommate—"a damn mistake I made," says Bobby Knight, who would have been Bird's coach—Bird flat out quit. Worse, back in French Lick, he sensed that many of his devoted fans felt that he had let them down, embarrassed the town. To this day Bird remembers who the fair-weather friends were.
Then within the year Larry's father committed suicide. Joe Bird was a laborer who was well liked in the Springs Valley and admired for the work he could do with his hands, but he could never seem to escape creditors and alcohol.
At Indiana State, where Bird matriculated a year after leaving Indiana, his life began to come back together, but then in 1975, at 19, Bird, who had never spent much time with girls, rushed into a disastrous marriage. Within a year they were divorced, but, as a final blow. Bird discovered after the marriage had ended that his former wife was pregnant. Their daughter, Corrie, was born in August 1977, before his junior year. Bird says he isn't allowed to spend much time with his little girl. He and his ex-wife aren't friendly, and however much he loves his child, he still flagellates himself for the youthful union that produced Corrie.
"When I was a kid I thought people who got divorced were the devil," he says, shaking his head. "And then I go out and do it myself right away. Getting married was the worst mistake I ever made. Everything that ever happened to me, I've learned from it, but I'm still scarred by that. That scarred me for life. That and being broke are the two things that influenced me most. Still.
"That dream I told you about—finding the million dollars. I have one other dream, too. The bad dream. I still have it sometimes. My wife is trying to get me to come back to her, but Dinah is there, too, and I keep saying to Dinah, I don't want to go with her, I don't want to go.' "
The Birds are known for their tempers, but Larry is so pale—the limpid eyes, the white-on-white mustache—that his face lends itself more to the gentler emotions. He turns almost tender now: "And Dinah was with me through all that stuff. She was there. I don't know how many times that poor girl stood under the basket and passed the ball back to me. Over and over, standing there, throwing it back to me so I could shoot. And then all the time takin' care of my injuries." And a quick broad smile: "Course, we've gotten a lot of beer drinkin" in together, too."
Dinah jokes with friends—well, maybe it's a joke—that Larry finally gave her the engagement ring only after his beloved Doberman, Klinger, died. And Bird still evades the direct question about matrimony: "I've told Dinah, 'Now why get married and ruin a good relationship?' But she really doesn't like it one bit when I say that." She can take some heart when Larry slips a little and says he thinks when he and Dinah get married that they might adopt children rather than have their own.
Anyway, they'll live back in French Lick, where they spend the off-season now, in the house Larry had built with the regulation basketball court and the satellite dish. Lu Meis, a department store executive who befriended Bird in Terre Haute and is now his partner in Larry Bird Ford- Lincoln-Mercury in Martinsville (which boasts a parquet showroom floor), says that once he went with Bird up to Indianapolis to inspect a house Bird was thinking of buying in the big city, but all Bird really seemed interested in was the sprinkler system, which made such a nice lawn. No, Larry Bird will stay in French Lick.
In a way Terre Haute serves as insulation, a halfway house between the French Lick cloister and the city where Bird spends most of the winter working. One almost expects visas for Boston to be distributed in Terre Haute. A radio station brings in Celtics games. The newspapers sometimes feature the Celtics over the Indiana Pacers. Larry Bird memorabilia is a cottage industry. At Larry Bird's Boston Connection hotel, the locals flock to watch Celtics games via satellite on the big screen in the Bird's Nest Sports Lounge—rarely tossing so much as a glance at the Indiana Hoosiers game on the tiny TV screen by the bar. The hallowed MVP Club dining room showcases a photograph of Larry taken by Kenny Rogers. In the coffee shop, also known as the Boston Garden Family Restaurant, miniature Celtics championship banners hang from the ceiling, and the place mats lovingly depict Larry's hands, life-size, complete with his crooked fingers.